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January 3, 2021

The Problem with Promoting Intentional Weight Loss.

It’s that time of year where the diet industry gears up with all its “New Year, New You” marketing around the latest way to “lose the weight” and get back on track.

And if you happen to be one of those people pushing for weight loss goals, we’re quite sure that your intentions are great and you earnestly want to help people live their best lives (or live your own best life) and that’s beautiful.

However, we would like you to consider that pursuing weight loss is not the best way to do that. 

We have a bold request of you: stop promoting intentional weight loss.

Our names are Brandilyn and Cara. We are two Food Freedom + Body Image Coaches.

While it might not be the case for everyone, we both developed eating disorders after trying to lose a few pounds (and we’re not alone, one in four dieters goes on to develop an eating disorder while the remaining three are at risk for developing some other type of issue with food like emotional eating, binge eating, or feeling out of control around food).

We’re writing this article to share with you the potential harm done by promoting intentional weight loss and invite you into another way of supporting individuals in their pursuit of health and well-being.

We want to first acknowledge that what we are about to share might contradict everything you have believed to be true about losing or maintaining weight. We are aware that what follows may be hard to take as fact. Resistance may arise, anger may arise, defensiveness may arise, and we ask that you meet it with an open mind.

If it does, you’re not alone. This is what happened to us when we first started learning the information we are about to share with you. It wasn’t easy at times to see the truth, to see how much we’d been lied to by the diet culture. How misinformed (often intentionally), we had been.  

So…What is Diet Culture?

According to Christy Harrison RD, “Diet Culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health.’” 

Every week, new clients come to us asking us to mend the damage done by diet culture and people who preach and profit from its fictions, intentionally or not. 

They tell us how their doctors, family members, friends, and influencers online who have an unchecked diet culture mentality reinforced the notion in their minds that weight loss is a necessary prerequisite to happiness, health, peace, acceptance, confidence, and fulfillment. The list goes on. 

If you haven’t yet been made aware of the oppressive and harmful nature of diet culture, we don’t blame you. Diet culture is the water we’re all swimming in—it’s invisible to us until it’s pointed out. We are addressing this because we trust that if you’re promoting intentional weight loss (or pursuing it yourself), you have good intentions. And we (as coaches ourselves) would have wanted someone to tell us if we were doing harm unintentionally, so that we could course-correct. That’s what we’re here for. 

To be a big sign flashing in your awareness saying, “Lane closed! Take an alternate route!”

The Pursuit of Weight Loss is Not the Same as The Pursuit of Health

Many people will read that last line and ask themselves, “But don’t most people need to lose weight in order to be truly healthy? Isn’t health and weight loss often one and the same?”

And the answer is a big (unapologetically), fat “no.” 

The research shows that the indicators of true health have everything to do with the absence or presence of health-promoting behaviors, and very little to do with weight itself. 

Health-promoting behaviors, like eating more fruits and vegetables, getting your heart rate up, and drinking more water are a means of increasing mental, emotional, and physical well-being. According to many studies like this one, health-promoting behaviors prevent diseases, decrease morbidity, and improve the quality of life—regardless of changes in weight.

Weight loss itself does not reliably do any of these things. This study that analyzed data from 21 different randomized controlled trials for weight loss diets uncovered, “No clear relationship between weight loss and health outcomes related to hypertension, diabetes, or cholesterol, calling into question whether weight change per se had any causal role in the few effects of the diets. The findings are in line with a recent meta-analysis (Flegal, Kit, Orpana, & Graubard, 2013) that found that overweight and class I obesity were not associated with higher all-cause mortality.” That’s not exactly the story we’re told by the news or medical field. 

Most attempts at weight loss are temporary, often leading to gaining back all of the weight—and in some cases more. This means that dieting is a predictor of future weight gain not sustained weight loss. This yo-yoing of weight causes damage to our metabolism, as well as our self-esteem and overall well-being. 

Not only does weight loss not actually promote physical health, but an emphasis on weight loss reduces holistic health to bodily appearance.

It inadvertently incentivises individuals to prioritise weight loss over (and often at the expense of) their mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health and well-being.

In fact, according to NEDA (The National Eating Disorders Association), “The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.” Without the social rewards of being thinner, weight loss would not be the primary focus of so many people’s health pursuits, which as we mentioned often, leads to a decrease in health. 

Someone who is stressed about needing to lose (or keep off) weight is not healthy, because stress is not healthy for the body.

We can’t begin to tell you how many clients we’ve had come to us saying that while they were pursuing weight loss on their own, their mental health suffered, their career success suffered, their creativity suffered, and sometimes their relationships suffered. 

It reinforces the already all-pervasive narrative in our culture that physical attractiveness (or rather, conformity to our white-supremacist, fatphobic, objectifying, patriarchal, capitalistic, reductionary society’s definition of attractiveness) on the outside is a substitute for health on the inside.

The very nature of diet culture and talking about losing weight promotes the idea that weight loss is inherently good, and that thinner bodies are better bodies. 

We’ll say that one more time: weight loss is not inherently good. Thinner bodies are not better bodies. 

The behaviors that lead to weight loss are sometimes good (if they are health-promoting behaviors), but sometimes the behaviors that lead to weight loss are inherently bad (they are health-impeding behaviors). 

And when we focus on weight loss rather than health-promoting behaviors, we’re more likely than not encouraging people to resort to health-impeding behaviors. Not only that, but we are statistically less likely to maintain health-promoting behaviors over time if our main goal is weight loss. This is because most people lose weight at first, then plateau, so they either resort to extreme behaviors (undereating, over-exercising), or rebound into binge eating, or they throw in the towel on the healthy-promoting behaviors (because why engage in them if they don’t result in weight loss?).

This is where the distinction between dieting and pursuing health becomes important. As we previously wrote about in this article, dieting (literally has the word die right smack in the middle of it) has to do with any attempt to kill off some aspect or part of ourselves. 

Dieting has everything to do with restriction, deprivation, and punishment. Dieting asks the question: “What do I need to take away from myself?”

Any form of dieting comes from dualistic thinking: believing that fat bodies are bad and thin bodies are good, or that bread is bad and vegetables are good. 

Diet mentality also creates dualism between self and body: me versus my body. 

The pursuit of true health is not dualistic. It is holistic. Embedded right smack in the middle of the word health is the word heal: to unify, to bring together.

When we are pursuing true health, we are not trying to destroy or kill off any aspect of our bodies or minds. Rather, we are reintegrating all parts of ourselves back into wholeness.

True health has nothing to do with depriving or punishing. Rather, when we are pursuing true health, we ask ourselves: “What does my body want more of?” We treat our bodies as if they were a beloved child that we want to take the best possible care of.

Health-promoting behaviors are a gift we give ourselves because we love our bodies so much, rather than a punishment that we inflict on ourselves. 

*Side note: since pursuing “health” can become incredibly unhealthy (hello Orthorexia), including mental, emotional, and spiritual health in your overall definition and pursuit is necessary.

Weight Neutrality

From the diet mentality, we think of weight loss as inherently good. In the pursuit of true health, we think of weight loss neutrally. It is neither bad nor good, weight fluctuations are simply a potential side effect of engaging in more or less health-promoting behaviors.

A randomized controlled trial analyzing six different studies found that a weight-neutral approach to health-promoting behaviors statistically and clinically improved physiological measurements (example: blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (example: physical activity, eating disorder pathology), and psychosocial outcomes (example: mood, self-esteem, body image).

When we are pursuing true health, weight-neutral health, we do not objectify our bodies. We relate to our bodies as a consciousness, a subject rather than an object. We see ourselves as being at one with our bodies rather than against them. And we never sacrifice our mental, emotional, or spiritual health to attain some physical goal. We see all aspects of health as interdependent and do not hierarchize physical health over any other aspect of health. 

But It’s Not a Diet, it’s a Lifestyle

And this is the part where you are probably thinking “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” which is wellness culture’s super sneaky way of pretending to be something different from diet culture, because diet has become a dirty four-letter word.

Cue the response, “I don’t diet, I just eat healthily.”

All these “lifestyles” and “resets” masquerade around as something else, but when you remove the cloak, they are just some old diet—rebranded and repackaged—and sold to us as something new.  

Whether it’s Keto, Paleo, Whole 30, Noom, Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, or The Zone—it’s all about demonising certain types of foods while elevating others, equating weight loss with health, worshiping thinness, selling the idea that “health” looks a certain way, and if you are not losing weight—it’s your fault. 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with promoting and selling intentional weight loss.

Your Worth is Not Your Weight

Because we live in Diet Culture that idolises thinness and hierarchizes body types, regardless of whether or not you meet the standard—it’s oppressive. And while we do not blame anyone for wanting to be thinner so they can avoid the oppression and discrimination faced by people in larger bodies, promoting intentional weight loss is reinforcing the very oppression and discrimination we’re all trying to avoid by shrinking ourselves.

Since we’re taught to see weight loss as a way of attaining higher status, we attach our worth to our weight so we are willing to invest an obscene amount of time, money, and energy in getting thinner. We’re taught to believe that to be good enough, we must be thin enough. But the truth is, research shows that for the vast majority of people weight loss is not sustainable long-term.

This means that many people spend their entire lives chasing thinness while thinking something is wrong with their bodies and therefore themselves. On average, 92 percent of women feel dissatisfied with their bodies. This isn’t some random defect that women have, rather it’s a direct result of our culture that’s trained us into believing that the most valuable thing we can be as women is thin and pretty. 

This dominant narrative, what we refer to as The Beauty Myth, a term coined by Naomi Wolf, leaves most women constantly worrying about what they look like. This is self-objectification. 

Self-objectification is when people view themselves as objects, and as we mentioned above, dieting teaches us to see our bodies this way. While all people of all genders can suffer from self-objectification, it disproportionately impacts women and femmes and leaves them looking at themselves from the outsiders’ perspective. 

We’re always worried about what other people think of what we look like. We fear being judged, rejected, or seen as less valuable if we don’t meet the standard. 

According to Dr. Caroline Heldman’s research, women who self-objectify suffer from higher rates of depression, eating disorders, body shame, depressed cognitive functioning, sexual dysfunction, lower self-esteem, lower GPA, lower political efficacy, and engage in female competition.

Women are taught that their value is proportionate to how attractive other people, particularly heterosexual men, find them. So we compete with each other for attention from this male gaze, always looking to see where we fall in the hierarchy. We base our worth on how “f*ckable” other people find us, and it’s largely based on weight and body size.  

As you can see, what appears to just be honest attempts at helping people get healthy through weight loss has a profoundly negative ripple effect. 

It contributes to this system of oppression. 

So to recap, we ask you to start helping women (all people) be unconditionally at peace with themselves, and free to pursue true health—not weight loss. We ask this of you because of advertising weight loss as something that is necessarily good does the following:

>> Contributes to body shame

>> Contributes to attaching worth to weight

>> Sponsors fatphobia, weight stigma, and body dysmorphia

>> Contributes to the development of eating disorders and disordered eating

>> Contributes to objectification culture

>> Supports something that isn’t backed by science

Perhaps you are reading this and tallying up the amount of time you have spent trying to lose weight, only to gain it back. Maybe you have family and friends who have been dieting for decades. Maybe you believe that dieting is just what we’re supposed to do as women, maybe hating your body is how you thought it would always be. We know that we have spent decades obsessing over food and trying to control our bodies—and that we’re not alone. 

Giving up the pursuit of weight loss is hard because it can feel like giving up on finding happiness. Giving up selling weight loss might be just as hard since we know that so many people want weight loss (you know, in an attempt to avoid oppression and discrimination). But there is another option. Another way to help people. A way that doesn’t perpetuate a system that causes so much harm to so many by stealing their life from them and making them feel like failures. 

We know because we are doing it.

We both have helped thousands of people heal their relationship with food, make peace with their bodies, and pursue real holistic health instead of obsessing over their weight. 

Becoming coaches and using our businesses to help dismantle body-based oppression and Diet Culture has been incredibly fulfilling, and we want to inspire others to join us as coaches or changemakers who not only help people heal on a personal level, but use their work as a form of activism to change the toxic nature of diet culture and all the damage it causes.

It’s why we joined forces to create The Embodied Rebel Academy, to train other social justice warriors on how to use their business to help change the world. 

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